Dr. Nicole Eyet's Response to Dr. Austin's Talk

The following is the text of Dr. Nicole Eyet's response to Dr. Timothy Austin's talk delivered at the Academic Syposium on October 16, 2013. Dr. Eyet is an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Anselm College.

Dr. Nicole EyetI, for one, share Dr. Austin's optimism of inspiring technology. I immediately thought of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded last week. The prize was awarded jointly to Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel "for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems." To quote the Nobel Committee's summary:

"The fact that scientists these days can use computers to carry out experiments has yielded a much deeper understanding of how chemical processes play out. The strength of the methods [...] can be used to study all kinds of chemistry; from the molecules of life to industrial chemical processes. Scientists can optimize solar cells, catalysts in motor vehicles or even drugs, to take but a few examples."

The processes in which these computations can be used illustrate just how prevalent science and technology have become in today's society. One needs to have a general understanding of science to ask important questions of your doctor about your medication, to decide with which fuel to heat your home, to shape or comment on public policy, to be generally effective consumers.

With this technology, all of the distractions we hold on even a single iPhone, many lose sight of the big picture. In this case, the structure of a liberal arts education has become all the more important. As a scientist, I hope my students continue their inquisitive behavior, make exciting discoveries, and invent new technology. Their chances for success are increased in by the creativity that is cultivated in their courses in the humanities and integrated into their scientific thinking. It is increasingly important for our students to communicate their ideas persuasively and effectively, since it seems we have less "time" than ever before. It is vitally important for them to understand how their new discoveries, ideas, and technologies fit within a broader context and to seriously consider any ethical implications. This is what an education with a foundation in the liberal arts is training them to do.

The skills they learn from us are transferrable from job to job, career to career, discipline to discipline. In future, students will likely change their career tracks, employers, and job descriptions more than many have in the past. This liberal arts training allows students to be flexible and creative with their career goals. We aren't teaching them what to think, but how to think. 

And there is evidence that we are doing a good job. As Dr. Austin said, business leaders say it is more important for graduates to be well-rounded.  It is not just business leaders. The National Science Foundation collects information about the institutions where Ph.D scientists received their undergraduate degrees. Between 1997-2006, liberal art undergraduate institutions have a much higher percentage of their students receiving science and engineering Ph.Ds than non-liberal art schools. Of the top fifty schools whose undergraduates continue on for a PhD, twenty eight are liberal arts schools. Given this, I agree with Dr. Austin, and am encouraged by the future of the liberal arts.